Richard Steele Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Sir Richard Steele’s periodical essays, even more than his four plays, had a major impact on early eighteenth century sensibility. Beginning his journalistic career as the anonymous author of the Whig government’s The London Gazette, Steele later joined with Joseph Addison to produce The Tatler (1709-1711; 188 periodicals by Steele) and The Spectator (1711-1712, 1714; 236 periodicals by Steele), the most influential vehicles of opinion and taste of their day, which consisted of short, fictional essays illustrating an idea, theme, or moral. Steele later wrote, also with Addison, The Guardian (1713), also a vehicle for periodical essays. The Englishman (1713-1714, first series; 1715, second series; periodical essays), The Theatre (1720, later edited by John Loftis and published as Richard Steele’s “The Theatre,” 1920, 1962), and lesser periodicals also came from Steele’s pen. Taken together, these more than seven hundred essays constitute Steele’s major literary achievement. Steele was also an occasional poet, a writer of political tracts such as The Importance of Dunkirk Considered (1713), and a moral philosopher, author of The Christian Hero (1701).

Achievements

Although not a dramatist of the first rank, Sir Richard Steele had some notable successes and is important in theater history. He came to write for the theater when, in his words, successful comedies were “built upon the ruin of virtue and innocence.” An advocate of reform, Steele hoped to demonstrate that a play could provide effective entertainment without pandering to the worst tastes of the town. He believed that high spirits and a healthy didacticism could coexist. In practice, his demonstrations were mixed successes. Steele stressed domestic virtues and worked hard to make them seem attractive. He appealed to emotion in ways not customary in comedy, helping to usher in a hybrid form known as sentimental comedy , a forerunner of melodrama. These features, as well as Steele’s characters and themes, caused him to be among the first to reflect the consciousness of the new middle class.

Steele was a competent manager of dramatic structure, a fashioner of believable characters who speak intelligibly and who, when they are not whining excessively, can gain one’s sympathy. Often robust in movement, Steele’s comedies sometimes suffer from being too studied, too obviously written as prescriptions and thus lacking in natural ease. Steele’s plays, along with his drama criticism, had considerable influence in England and in France. Unfortunately, it was an influence in a direction that has not found much esteem—though the enormous audience for the modern-day soap opera may owe him a debt of gratitude.

Other Literary Forms

Sir Richard Steele is well known for his four plays, his prose work, The Christian Hero (1701), and his later periodicals. His plays are strongly didactic in purpose and tone, and this intention carries over to his short fiction in his periodicals. Perceived as a reformer of the stage, Steele was named Governor of the Drury Lane Theatre in order to improve the moral tone of the playhouse. His last play, The Conscious Lovers (1722), is often identified as “sentimental” drama whose influence changed the course of the English theater.

Achievements

Richard Steele enjoyed a well-rounded and successful writing career. He was well known as “Mr. Spectator” and enjoyed a tremendous success with his daily. Nearly all fashionable London knew about The Spectator, and its influence on the taste, fashion, and opinions of the well-to-do is hard to discount. Steele was also widely influential when he began his dramatic career. His play The Conscious Lovers was touted as a new genre, the domestic comedy. It was controversial because it broke the dramatic rules of the day, but the controversy merely improved its popularity. Steele increased his influence on Londoners yet again when he became stage manager of Drury Lane, one of the leading theaters. He became responsible for deciding the very plays they would see in an era when the theater was the major source of entertainment. In 1714, Steele was knighted, having served the government’s cause through his writing.

Bibliography

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom, eds. Addison and Steele: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1996. A collection of critical analyses of the works of Steele and Joseph Addison. Bibliography and index.

Bloom, Edward A., and Lillian D. Bloom, eds. Educating the Audience: Addison, Steele, and Eighteenth Century Culture: Papers Presented at a Clark Library Seminar, 15 November 1980. Los Angeles: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles, 1984. A collection of essays presenting critical analysis of the works of Steele and Addison as well as essays on the theater of their time.

Calhoun, Wineton. Captain Steele: The Early Career. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964. Primarily a biographical study, this book discusses The Tatler and The Spectator but focuses mostly on the circumstances surrounding them rather than on actual analysis.

Connely, Willard. Sir Richard Steele. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1934. This volume is the standard biography on Steele. While it is old, it is relatively useful. The chapters on The Tatler and The Spectator are helpful, including information on the business aspects of producing the two papers.

Dammers, Richard H. Richard Steele. Boston:...

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